Peace be with you

School of Music invokes messages of goodwill and unity with epic stage production March 2-4

One of the splendors of music is its power to inspire joy, acceptance and understanding among people of all backgrounds and beliefs. It is widely recognized that Leonard Bernstein’s dramatic "MASS: Theatre Piece for Singers, Players and Dancers" does just that, bringing to life diverse views on spirituality, self-reflection and personal responsibility through the musical means only one of America’s greatest composers could envision.

Despite its rather pious-sounding title, “MASS” speaks to people of all beliefs and even those without a faith. It begins mostly like a traditional Roman Catholic liturgy, with Bernstein’s music set against Latin prose. As the production moves forward, different points of view emerge: A rock band interrupts acolytes and questions the value of confession. A street chorus and a marching band challenge other aspects of the church and piety. Another group of performers acknowledges the apathy that runs through society. Each of these vignettes is uplifting and powerful.

“At the end of the day, ‘MASS’ is a celebration of love,” says Ellen Schlaefer, Director of Opera Studies and stage director for MASS.

At a time in our country when bitter words and online attacks surround topics of immigration, gender identity and women’s rights, the profound messages of achieving peace and unity that are deeply embedded in “MASS” are more poignant now than ever.

“This moment of social and civil unrest presents the perfect time for the School of Music to bring this epic stage production to life and revisit the inclusiveness and hopefulness this remarkable work inspires,” says Tayloe Harding, dean of University of South Carolina School of Music.

Marking the 2018 centenary of Bernstein’s birth, more than 200 performers will take the stage March 2-4 at the Koger Center for three performances of his monumental “MASS.”

“The words ‘once in a lifetime’ get used frequently, but on that weekend in March they will likely be true for the hundreds of us who attend one of the performances unlike anything in the music school’s 90-year history,” Harding says.

At the end of the day, ‘MASS’ is a celebration of love. 

Ellen Schlaefer, stage director

“MASS” is one of the most profound stage works ever created in English and an iconic piece of Americana. Sung in English, Latin and Hebrew, it is Bernstein's most ambitious theater work. The epic stage production includes two orchestras, a rock band, a blues band, several choirs, singers, actors and dancers from the USC dance program, and features as the Celebrant acclaimed Seattle tenor Kevin Vortmann, who recently performed the role to critical praise with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

“Anytime this many young people get together for a non-competitive event, such as a theatre piece, it is a good thing,” Schlaefer says. “More than 220 students from across campus are currently involved with the project – singers, dancers, instrumentalists – not to mention 22 children from around the Midlands.”

“MASS” has its roots in another turbulent era in our country’s history. Bernstein composed it in 1971, on commission from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis for the opening of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. At the time, our country was deeply divided over the Vietnam War, race relations, environmental activism and the burgeoning equal rights amendment.

Over the years, the ideas and dissent embodied in “MASS” that were so threatening to the political and religious establishments in the volatile early-1970s, have become a more accepted part of spiritual and political discourse. Time has revealed “MASS” to be a visionary piece that continues to be relevant and move audiences as it enjoys performances around the world.

“My hope is that everyone who comes together to witness this remarkable musical performance will take to heart Bernstein's message of peace, unity and understanding.” Harding says.

If you're going

Performances are at 7:30 p.m., March 2-3, and 3 p.m., March 4. Tickets are $30 for adults; $25 for UofSC faculty and staff, military and seniors; $10 for children and students with ID. Purchase online at, by phone at 803-251-2222 or in person at the Koger Box Office, Greene at Park Street (9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday-Friday).

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